What a movie is about is always in the eye of the beholder. But for Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, “Omar” is a universal story that just happens to be set in his troubled homeland.
“I see it as a love story,” he told me during a phone interview this week. “A film about love, friendship, trust, and betrayal, set in the Occupied Territories. The Occupation is not so important; it’s in the background. And it’s about young people who have a good intention, but they do bad choices where they will be under the pressure of choosing between their desires and their duty.”
The story about Omar and the complicated relationships with his childhood friends Amjad and Tarek, and Tarek’s sister Nadia, who both Omar and Amjad love, play out in a community divided by the Israeli built security walls. However Abu-Assad says he wants audiences to focus on the universal theses in the story, rather than the specific location.
“The conflict will end one day,” he said, “And you don’t want your movie to end with the conflict.”
Abu-Assad is no stranger to the international spotlight. His film “Paradise Now” about two would-be suicide bombers was also nominated for the best foreign language Oscar. He says “Omar” was inspired in part by something that happened during the making for that movie.
“During the shooting of ‘Paradise Now,’ I felt that there was a traitor in the crew, giving secrets to the army,” he said. Often as they turned up to shoot scenes in Palestinian communities such as Nablus, the film crew would find Israeli Army units waiting for them, to disrupt the filming. This kept happening despite attempts to keep the crews’ whereabouts secret. Abu-Assad says it was devastating.
“Because you start to mistrust everyone around you,” he said. “And because you don’t know who is the traitor, you start to suspect everybody. And this is a very disturbing feeling that I felt I should do something about.”
“Omar” tells the story of how the three friends plot and successfully carry out an attack on members of the Israeli Army. However after Omar is captured, and brutally interrogated by the Israeli security service, he finds himself suspected of being an informer after he is released. Even Nadia, who professes her love for him, questions his loyalty.
Hany Abu-Assad says it’s this sense of trust and betrayal that makes “Omar” a universal story.
“Every human being on Earth will tell you once that he suspected his love, that she or he had another relationship,” he said.
“I hope that people can be truly entertained by ‘Omar,'” he said. “But also go home with questions, and try to answer them yourself. And it’s not necessary that I should give you the answer. People should find the answer for themselves.”
“And be inspired,” he said. “Good movies that I watch inspire me to become a better man. I hope this movie will inspire people to become a better human being.”
No one in “Omar” is without fault. The young Palestinians are rebelling against the oppression the feel from the Israeli occupation. However, Abu-Assad shows how they are also victims of the social strictures within the Palestinian community. Omar, played with remarkable aplomb by Adam Bakri, has to scale barriers both literal and figurative to make any progress in life.
The film has met with critical success across the world. Abu-Assad says even in Israel where he was surprised when the reactions from both Palestinians and Israelis sides were positive.
“They recognize themselves somehow in the movie, and they appreciate it,” he said.
Now the film is opening nationwide in the US. It’s distributed by Adopt Films, a company led by Twin Citian Tim Grady, known for his work with the Film Society of Minneapolis and St Paul, and the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.
The opening comes a week before Hany Abu-Assad is up for the best foreign language Oscar again. When asked about what it’s like he just responds “Oh my God.”
After pausing for consideration though, he is philosophical about his second ride on the Oscar roller coaster.
“I am honored first of all,” he said. “This time I hope I will have better luck. But this time I am enjoying it more.”
He then comes up with a pithy analogy for what he’s going through.
“It’s exactly like when you make love for the first time. You will never enjoy the first time because you are so busy. You don’t know what is going on, and you are not living the moment. I think you start enjoying making love just after that. I think I enjoy it better now, because I am know the good things and I am enjoying it, and the bad things I am prepared for.”